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Book reinforces nurses' role in WW1

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Highlighting the key work of nurses Highlighting the key work of nurses

Overturning the romanticised image of nurses was the subject of a book launched at the RCN on 4 December, as part of the college's World War One lecture series.

In the Company of Nurses by historian Yvonne McEwen highlights the important work that nurses did during World War One. Ms McEwen hoped to reset the image that was created at the time and which persists today, she said. 'Nurses were portrayed as angelic, pretty women, which was not a realistic image of them. The government exploited the image of the nurses to encourage people to get behind the war effort,' she said.

Ms McEwan's book uses unpublished and unofficial documents, letters and diaries to tell the story of the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service during the First World War.

During the lecture, she spoke about how Edith Cavell was portrayed as a heroine after her death, but she was not the only woman executed during the war.

Ms McEwen also said that a highly personal account of the war, Testament of Youth, by VAD Vera Brittain, should not be considered the experience of all nurses.

'This was her personal experience and she wasn't always complimentary about nurses [as a VAD]. She has fuelled the image about Voluntary Aid Detachment's (VAD's) as being at the centre of nursing in World War One,' she added.

The book also highlights the complex clinical work that the nurses carried out and the relationship between trained and volunteer nurses. It also lists the deaths within the ranks of the nursing service and the military honours that were awarded to the nurses.

Peter Carter, chief executive of the RCN, spoke briefly at the lecture. 'It is important that we do not forget the sacrifice that those young women made 100 years ago.'

The RCN opened an exhibition in September with diaries, letters and illustrations from World War One to mark the centenary. The exhibition will run until March 2015.

To see more articles about the role of nurses in World War One visit the Professional section.

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